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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Harvestmen Harvested

See the Picasaweb album for more pictures from this hike.

I love this time of year. Orange daylilies, blue chicory, and hot pink sweet peas shout from the roadside like some exuberant shapenote choir transposed from sound to color, and occasionally a patch of black-eyed susans bursts into a bravura solo. The only combination I like better happens in late summer when the fields fill with yellow and purple as the New England asters and the goldenrod blossom side by side.

I parked at the Freber (aka Hodge) Road trailhead and spent a few minutes enjoying the profusion of wildflowers. The mullein blossoms weren't what you'd call showy, but the way the spikes towered over the other plants made them seem like the natural leaders of the yellow contingent. Of course St John's wort, with its blasts of saturated yellow, kept drawing my eye back down near the ground. Looking upward again, I finally picked out the lemon-yellow stigmas of a few evening primrose that, as usual, I'd mistaken for mullein at first glance.

The teasels kept drawing my eye, and again I thought how particularly evocative they are. In the winter, when the rest of the dead flowers are laid low under a blanket of snow, the teasels stand there, alone and just as dead, with only a light dusting of snow to show for their stolidness. They have an aching sadness: all the life - all that was green and white and wet - has fallen away from their stems and pods, and what's left seems to embody the funereal dryness that Poe called "crisped and sere". On this summer day, though, they told a different story, catching my eye with their contrasting textures and colors. Each flash of delicate lavender was a band of tiny flowers around the middle of a pincushion-like head, which sat inside a phalanx of thorny bracts. After reading the Wikipedia article I know that that lavender band was poised to split; as a matter of fact, if you click on the picture above you'll see what Grace just noticed: on one of the teasels in the background the ring of blossoms had already split in two.

The Queen Anne's lace were in full flush, forming a sparse web over the lower greenery like a pearled snood. The good old Tyrol knapweed formed a vibrant purplish backdrop within the shadows of the lower greenery, while burnt umber froths of curled dock made the roadside look like it had been singed by a selective fire. Just before I headed onto the trail I noticed a yellow cinquefoil that I don't think I'd seen before. I've since identified it as rough cinquefoil.

One of the first interesting things I saw was a harvestman with only five legs. I've seen plenty with one or two legs missing, but this is the first one I've noticed who'd lost three - and it had lost them all from one side! It seemed to be getting around perfectly well anyway.

Moving on, I saw a harvestman of a species I didn't think I'd seen before - it's always hard to say because the details are too small to see with the naked eye. That's one of the reasons I love macro photography - the closeup shot of this guy revealed a beautiful Rorschach pattern dappling its body.

Within a few hundred yards I'd reached the blackberry patches that cover both sides of the trail. Two weeks earlier, back in Millburn, I'd noticed that the harvestmen seem to love wineberry bushes, so I inspected these blackberry bushes very closely. Not only did I find that each plant was practically covered with harvestmen, but I discovered the unexpected theme of the hike: I was walking through a hidden harvestman graveyard.

I'd seen plenty of spiders lurking within leaves that they'd curled up with their own webs, so when I noticed a downward-curled blackberry leaf on an otherwise thriving plant I turned it over to see what was underneath. The few small black filaments I saw looked surprisingly familiar: I was almost sure they were harvestman legs. At first I thought I might have been mistaken, and anyway the harvestmen might not have been eaten - they could have simply tugged free of those trapped legs and continued on. But I kept seeing similar bundles, so I started to think that some local spider favors harvestmen. Then I saw the flaw in my logic. This summer I've trained my eye to see harvestmen, and now it's clear that they are bloody well everywhere! And since they seem to be constantly crawling along every surface they may represent 99% of the species that ever touch those spider webs. Of course the spiders are eating harvestmen - they're the only game in town! And I did eventually find proof that the spiders were eating them: the biggest clump of remains contained not just legs, but the dried husk of a harvestman's body. See the straw-colored blob in the closeup above?

I saw more and more of those down-curled blackberry leaves - once my eye got the hang of it I couldn't stop seeing them - and although concealed webbing was responsible for all of them, I hardly found spiders under any of them. I began to think that I was seeing an arachnid behavior that was analagous to that of a human trapper: he sets a bunch of traps throughout his territory and then, as time allows, he comes along and checks them. Again I quickly saw a flaw in my logic: there could have been a spider beneath each one of those curled leaves five seconds before I came along, and the spider could have dropped off when it felt the vibrations from my footsteps. I think I was also wrong about a single species doing all the leaf-curling.

Of the few spiders I found under those curled leaves, almost all of them looked the same to me, and there was something pleasing to me about the thought of a single species of spider harvesting from this whole trail. Again, though, the macro shots tell a very different story. See the spider with the small black spots? I thought that was the same species as the one with the red racing stripes! If you look at the Picasaweb album you'll see other spiders - some with greenish colors, some with fawn-colored stripes - that I also thought were the same! It's amazing how our brains, given insufficient detail, will fill in the gaps in a way that's convenient for what we want to believe. I suspect that when I read up on spider behavior I'll find that this leaf-curling (and perhaps trapping?) behavior is as common as dirt.

While I was in minutiae mode I got to see a lot of the trail's tinier residents: as you can see from the size reference of my dirty fingernail, the inchworm would have fit inside the mouth of the wee frog from the previous day's hike; then there was the little pinkish spider that I almost didn't see because its body was just a few millimeters long. On the other hand, I ran across what I think is the tallest mullein I've ever seen; as you can see from the picture, it's about nine feet tall.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A short hike with the young'uns

For more shots from this hike see the Picasaweb album.

Thrilled that my four-year-old nephew Dylan was anxious for more hiking with me, and that my sixteen-(going on thirty)-year old daughter Morgan was happy to join us, I hiked in with them from Ingalls Corners Road. They were both in shorts and sandals, so we were quite careful about identifying the plants growing over the trail throughout the hedgerow. To the best of my knowledge there was no poison ivy.

With a little help from me the sandalled youngsters enjoyed the climb down the stone stairs. Then the real fun began. A flash of motion drew my eye to the tiniest frog I've ever seen, but I lost it. While searching for it my eye caught a moving speck of white. It turned out to be an egg sac on the back of a spider that was smaller than a peppercorn. I lost her while utterly failing to find the frog. But then we saw a snail, and after that we couldn't stop seeing snails. They were vigorously foraging about in the rain-dampened leaf clutter. Dylan enjoyed allowing a few of them to explore his hand while I told him about the snail's foot and the way it uses its protective slime to move around safely.

My goal was to show Dylan the quarry because, like most four-year-olds, he's almost terminally fascinated with construction equipment and anything associated with them. I held Dylan on my shoulders so that he could get a better view of the quarry, while Morgan took some pictures with my camera. She favors black and white photography, and she thought the tree and the old concrete structure made a good composition. I have to admit that it wasn't until I saw the shot in black and white that I saw exactly what she meant.

On the way back I once again saw movement, and this time I didn't take my eyes off the wee frog. It was quite energetic in its sincere desire to be nowhere near us, and I fear we upset it quite a bit trying to corral it for a good shot. You be the judge of whether it was worth it.

On the way back along the hedgerow I got several more chances to explain things to my delightfully receptive nephew. I told him about the woodchucks that made the holes he was so curious about, and told Morgan about what good eatin' those woodchucks are. The raindrops highlighting the contours of funneled spider web gave me the perfect chance to tell my nephew how the spider hides in the tunnel until a bug lands in the web, and then jumps out, paralyzes it, and wraps it up in its web so that it can eat it later. And when we walked through the bloodroot patch I told how native Americans used the red sap of the roots for dyeing - and how I wasn't showing it to them because the plant is rare and protected.

I count myself blessed to have such opportunities to share the wonders of the natural world - a phrase that shouldn't sound like such a cliché - with two generations.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

You want the short version or the long one?

Oh, this is just ridiculous. It's been two weeks since my latest hike and I've spent at least twice as long trying to write about it than I spent on the hike itself. So here goes.

Short version:
I walked from Nelson Road to Cottons Road and had a great time taking lots of closeup pictures of plants and insects and arachnids and such. I put my favorite shots in a Picasaweb album here.

Long version:
On my previous hike I covered thirty miles partly because I wasn't encumbered with a camera. On this hike I took over nine hundred digital photos but never got more than a mile from my car. Apparently I need to get the extremes out of the way before I can find a happy medium. I fall into the first extreme easily enough, losing myself in the ryhthm of pumping legs and heart as I strive for distance. It's harder for me to remember my need for hikes like this that are short on walking and long on looking - where I lose myself in tiny things. The camera helps.

I parked at the Nelson Road trailhead and walked west. The trail was full of bittersweet signs of seasonal change, reminding me that summer is old news and fall is around the corner. Late blossoms bloomed. Seed pods swelled where earlier blossoms had withered and fallen. Riots of vines twined around every standing plant, many giving up their strength to their reddening berries.

I'd intended to get five or ten miles of brisk hiking in, only stopping occasionally for some quick photos. Within ten minutes that plan had already gotten shaky. After failing to get a good shot of the dragonflies flitting about, I found a much more willing subject: a ladybug poised on a sumac leaf. Ten minutes later I got entranced by a weevil gathering nectar from a daisy fleabane blossom, and it was clear that the plan was in serious danger. Ten minutes after that the wheels came off the plan entirely. I'd already worked up a sweat trying to keep the camera steady while chasing and snapping away at the bees pollinating the white sweet clover. When my eye caught the snails climbing up those same plants - apparently to get to the choice leaves - I gave up on the idea of a long hike. I didn't mind too much. To explain why, I have to go back about fifteen years.

After college I spent lots of time walking along roadsides and through fields with my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers. At first I just wanted to see some pretty flowers, increase my knowledge, and have a full journal to show for it. To identify a flower, though, I had to focus all my attention on it, and with that shift in focus came a shift in perception. One oxeye daisy stopped being one more white splotch among ten thousand other white splotches and became something singularly complex and beautiful. One moth mullein became a breathtaking dance of color, texture and form. One more periwinkle blossom became the first first periwinkle blossom I'd ever seen; after all, how could I say I'd seen it if I hadn't noticed that graceful spiral in the petals? In bringing my senses to bear totally on something outside myself I was bringing me outside myself: for a moment not everything was about me. I was seeing, and it was changing me.

Sometimes when I go on a walk I get lost in the act of finding and photographing subjects. After this last one I realized that it brings me the same sense of peace that wildflower identification brought me fifteen years ago. To take decent pictures I first have to slow down and look around for a good subject, so right off the bat I'm seeing my surroundings in a way I usually don't. Then in order to make the shot anything more than decent I have to figure out from what angle I want to view the subject, how I want to frame it, how the light falls on it and whether the lens barrel is shading it. Finally I have to hold my breath and pay extremely close attention to a detail on the subject as I turn the focus ring so that I can get the focus I want right down to the millimeter. Just like the act of identifying something, taking a good picture of something forces you to give it your complete attention. And I've come to understand that complete attention is not separable from love.

I moved on past the surprisingly acrobatic snails and came to another sign of the changing season. Two weeks earlier the small cluster of mullein had not begun to blossom, and the moth mullein right next to it were in late bloom. Now the yellow mullein blossoms were popping out of the stems and attracting ants, and the moth mullein blossoms had withered and all but fallen off while their seed pods had swelled and begun to split.

By this point I was beginning to think that good photo subjects were everywhere - if I looked closely enough at most any interesting plant I'd probably find some sort of interesting creature on it. I don't know whether I was right or I just got very lucky, but within moments I looked at some photogenically ripening berries and saw a daddy longlegs on the leaves right next to them. I'm afraid I aggravated it quite a bit, trying to coax it into position with my hand. Once I got my shots I left it in peace.

I moved on between the shrubs and vines, getting some nice shots of a fetching little bee I've not identified yet. Then I got the big payoff. If I hadn't spent the entire hike soaking up the tiny details of the trail I never would have spotted the fantastically well camouflaged moth that I just identified as a Virginia creeper sphinx.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to remember the joys of taking a long time for a short hike. I won't always have the chance to look so closely, but the next time I go on a thirty mile hike I'll have a better sense of the wonders filling every inch of those thirty miles.